Tuesday, June 15, 2021

High Rock (Humboldt Redwoods)

Eel River from High Rock
1.2 miles, 200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Short dirt access to trailhead, no fee required

The old growth redwood forests of California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park are among the most extensive and beautiful such forests left on the planet. The short hike to High Rock visits some of the most extraordinarily beautiful alluvial flat redwood forest in the park and leads to a pretty view over the winding Eel River. The river view- while not remarkable- gives this hike more variety than most of the other hikes in the area that stick to forest alone, while the beauty of this particular forest makes this a hike that can challenge the better known trails through Rockefeller Grove and Founders Grove in Humboldt Redwoods. While few hikers choose this hike, the trail's proximity to the traffic on the Avenue of the Giants somewhat disrupts the quiet; still, this is an excellent hike for visitors to Humboldt Redwoods looking for some variety and a place to avoid the crowds at the more popular redwood groves.

I hiked to High Rock during a January trip to Northern California's Redwood Country. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is far from any major metropolitan area, about a four hour drive from either San Francisco or Sacramento, although it is just 40 minutes driving away from Eureka, the main population center in Humboldt County. Regardless of which direction you're coming from, you'll have to take US 101; to reach the trailhead, leave US 101 at exit 663 and follow Highway 254- the Avenue of the Giants- north. The Avenue of the Giants started out by following the Eel River but soon left the riverbank and enters forest; I came to the High Rock Trailhead 2 miles after turning onto the Avenue of the Giants. The road to the trailhead was unmarked and difficult to find if you're not looking for it: a short dirt road led to the right off the Avenue of the Giants and towards the river, with a slightly wider parking area about 50 yards off the Avenue that marked the start of the hike. The turnoff is on the east side of the Avenue of the Giants just slightly past the signed turnoff for the High Rock Conservation Camp.

There's no sign telling you that you're at the start of the trail, so you'll need to do your homework in advance to make sure you know where you are. An unmarked but well-established trail headed off to the right (to the south) from the dirt road and entered one of the most glorious old growth forests I've experienced. Humboldt Redwoods is particularly well known for its alluvial flat redwood forests and that's exactly what the trail goes through here. Although the forest is not particularly expansive here- its width is only the two hundred meter distance between the Avenue of the Giants and the sandbars of the Eel River- the flats here are magnificently lush and the trees here are stately and soaring. The generally open redwood sorrel ground cover at the start of the trail is similar to other areas of sorrel ground cover in the park like the Grieg-French-Bell Grove, but the redwoods along the High Rock Trail are certainly more impressive.

Redwoods along the Eel River
The trail passed by a number of signs indicating the names of the groves. The Save the Redwoods League- the organization responsible for the preservation of most of California's old growth redwood forests- uses naming rights as a fundraising tactic to raise money to save these forest giants. The Save the Redwoods League was founded in the 1910s when Stephen Mather, the then director of the National Park Service, dispatched a group of conservationists to northern California to investigate the claims of soaring trees of immense height. Upon reaching coastal northern California, these conservationists- who went on to found Save the Redwoods League- realized that California's two million acres of old growth redwood forest was rapidly being consumed by voracious sawmills to feed California's booming economy. Banding together to found the League, they worked to have some grand old growth forest along the Eel River protected in Humboldt Redwoods State Park with the help of funding from John D. Rockefeller.

Save the Redwoods League's efforts ultimately resulted in the preservation of Humboldt Redwoods State Park and what is today Redwood National and State Parks. However, public lands today protect only about 100,000 acres of old growth redwood forest of the 2 million acres that once stretched across this area of the state. Almost no privately owned old-growth forest remains. The great redwood forests that once would have lined the shores of Humboldt Bay and the Mendocino Coast are now no more. Thus, while the world's tallest known tree today is the coast redwood Hyperion in Redwood National Park, there's a good chance that taller redwoods might have once stood in these forests but then fell to loggers' saws. The forests that remain today are inspiring with their skyscraping canopies, but contemplating the removal of vast tracts of redwoods here also imbued me with a deep sense of loss.

Redwoods along the trail to High Rock
There are few things that can make me feel as small as standing on the floor of a redwood forest. Looking up, I could see straight and sturdy trunks of the redwoods around me soaring over three hundred feet high. The tallest known coast redwood today is a specimen in Redwood National Park reaching 379 feet tall.

Soaring redwoods
At a quarter mile from the trailhead, the trail crossed a bridge over a creek. Soon after crossing the bridge, the trail left the alluvial flats of the early stretch of trail and began a gentle ascent through redwood forests on a slope. The trees became a little smaller here and the ground cover transitioned between the a sorrel-fern mix to predominately ferns, but the forest was still very beautiful and impressive here. 

Redwoods rise above an understory of ferns
As the trail climbed gently, it passed by an unmarked spur trail heading off to the left that I believe led down to the banks of the Eel River. The main trail continued onwards, passing close by the roadway of the Avenue of the Giants before making a couple switchbacks up the north slopes of High Rock. The forest here transitioned from redwoods to a drier mix of oaks and madrones. The trail going up to the viewpoint atop High Rock was unmarked but obvious: I kept following the switchbacks up to the top of the low ridge and then I followed the trail on the ridge out to a fenced-in viewpoint. There is no grand, sweeping view here: just a narrow view of the Eel River through a medium-sized gap in the trees. That said, this was still a nice view of the Eel River, with faraway forested mountains rising over the river and three-hundred foot forest giants rising directly from the river's banks nearby.

Eel River flowing through the Humboldt Redwoods
I saw just two other hikers on my evening hike up to High Rock. While the forest may not be as expansive as some of the other groves at Humboldt Redwoods, it still exemplifies many of the qualities that make redwood forests so special and makes for a lovely hike when paired with the views of the Eel River. I recommend for both visitors to the region and those who hike here frequently.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Richardson Grove

Redwoods of Richardson Grove
0.6 miles loop, 0 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Richardson Grove State Park entrance fee required

For many northbound visitors, Richardson Grove signals their arrival into northern California's Redwood Country. This small state park protects a majestic old growth redwood grove that is bisected by US Highway 101. While the narrow drive through the grove on US 101 is already quite scenic, many visitors will find that the grove is even more beautiful when explored on foot on this short and flat loop trail. Richardson Grove does not quite match the lushness of the more famous groves to the north in Humboldt Redwoods State Park or Redwood National Park, but it is an easily accessible and enjoyable leg-stretcher for travelers on US 101. There are more extensive trails in Richardson Grove State Park, but the short loop described here visits the most impressive part of the grove.

I visited Richardson Grove during a January trip to Northern California's Redwood Country. Richardson Grove State Park is far from any major metropolitan area, about a 3.5 hour drive from either San Francisco or Sacramento and still over an hour away from Eureka. Regardless of which direction you're coming from, you'll have to take US 101, which passes through the grove a little bit north of Leggett and a bit south from Garbersville. As this is perhaps the most impressive redwood grove directly along US 101, you'll know you're at the park when you arrive; there is a signed turnoff into the park on the west side of the road, which I took and then followed the park road to the visitor center, which was the trailhead for this short loop.

The Richardson Grove Visitor Center- which occupies the structure once known as the Richardson Grove Lodge- is in the very heart of the grove, surrounded by towering redwoods on all sides, with the lodge itself built around a number of redwood trees. This lodge was once a popular retreat for vacationers from the Bay Area; its location as the southernmost of the major groves in the Humboldt Redwoods area made it a popular destination for tourists not looking to travel much farther north. Many aspects of this lodge- including the choice to build it amongst and around old growth redwoods- would be considered abominations by modern environmental preservation standards but these structures still stand as they were built long before these environmental considerations came to mind.

Richardson Grove Lodge (now a visitor center)
From the visitor center, short loops branch off to both the north and the south. This short hike through Richardson Grove combines both loops, each of which are flat and wide. The southern loop is particularly enjoyable to hike and is only about a third of a mile long. To reach the southern loop, I left from the left (south) side of the visitor center, where a nature trail with many interpretive placards led around the bases of these massive redwoods.

Richardson Grove had a majestic feel with its soaring, pillar-like trees reaching over 300 feet into the air. Although the soil and branch litter groundcover here was more reminiscent of the drier redwood forests to the south, the size of these trees and the number of exceptionally big trees made this grove substantially more impressive than groves in the Santa Cruz Mountains or Sonoma County. 

Soaring redwoods at Richardson Grove
The southern loop was intuitive to follow, despite a few intersections with side trails that led to a camp amphitheatre and out to US 101. The interpretive placards gave good background on the trees, noting that these trees- the tallest known in the world- have many odd quirks. For example, redwoods are extremely resistant to fire and many still stand and grow even when their trunks have been hollowed out and blackened by fire. These remarkable cavities in the trees are today known as goosepens, as that's exactly how many early European American settlers in the region used them. Redwoods are also notable in their ability to regenerate, sprouting new trunks from burls in the trunk or base of existing trees after damage. 

Near the far end of the southern loop, I came upon an absolutely massive redwood that sported two massive burls on either side of its trunk, about thirty feet off the ground, each of which then supported another soaring vertical trunk. This was an extraordinarily voluminous redwood- surely one of the largest trees in the grove- and a highlight of this hike.

Massive burl on a redwood giant

Soaring redwoods of Richardson Grove
After finishing the southern loop, I found myself back at the visitor center. Walking along the backside (western side) of the visitor center, I came to a parking lot at the north end of the visitor center and then set out on the northern loop. The forest here was still beautiful but the trees were perhaps somewhat less impressive than those on the southern loop. The trail ran quite close to US 101 and the sound of traffic was constant. The trail intersected with trails leading to the western section of the park; stay right at every intersection to do this loop clockwise and return to the visitor center.

Richardson Grove
Richardson Grove's proximity to US 101 has become a problem for both the highway and the grove itself. The grove marks the narrowest stretch of US 101 in its 808-mile journey up the state of California as the highway is confined by the trees themselves. In fact, the current highway is too narrow here to accomodate tractor-trailers carrying freight up this main coastal arterial, forcing cargo traveling from Eureka to San Francisco to take a nearly 300-mile detour up through Grants Pass, Oregon. As the redwoods line both side of the Eel River here, it's not feasible to simply reroute US 101 around the grove; therefore, Caltran's current plan is to widen the highway in the grove itself. Such a plan would require a number of trees in the grove to be cut down, although Caltrans claims that the trees affected would only be second-growth. 

As of early 2021, work has not begun on this road expansion yet, but Caltrans is fighting with environmental groups (including Save Richardson Grove) to break ground. The commercial need for widening US 101 is obviously clear for Humboldt County, but old growth redwood groves like Richardson Grove are a rarity now that 95% of Northern California's old growth redwood forests have been logged. While Caltrans states that no old growh trees will be removed, it has acknowledged that roadwork will likely overlap with the delicate root systems of the old growth here, which is a problem as redwoods- tall as they are- have very shallow and sensitive roots. Ultimately, this tug of war between economic development and saving soaring trees some 2000 years old will depend on our priorities and our values.

In case you're worried about the effect that road expansion will have on Richardson Grove, it's probably better to visit sooner rather than later. If you visit Humboldt Redwoods or Redwood National Park, you'll see more impressive forest. But if you don't bother to leave the highway, this grove remains a place where you'll be forced to slow down enough to notice and be in awe of this majestic forest.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Damnation Creek

Redwoods meet the coast at Damnation Creek
4 miles round trip, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The Damnation Creek Trail passes through an incredibly lush and beautiful redwood forest on its descent from US Highway 101 to the Pacific coast in California's Del Norte Redwoods State Park, which is a part of the larger Redwood National and State Parks system. The hike's coupling of spectacular forest and coastal scenery makes it one of the premier hikes around Redwood National and State Parks.  The hike makes a steep descent through redwood forest to reach the shoreline, meaning that hikers will have to tackle a fairly big hill climb on the way back. Damnation Creek is a good late afternoon hike- the west-facing slopes here allow sunlight to stream in late in the day, even when other redwood forests are largely in the shade. I found this to be one of the more enjoyable hikes during my second visit to Redwood National and State Parks.

The last bridge on the Damnation Creek Trail- which is just a few hundred yards before the trail reaches the beach- has seen structural damage and been closed for a few years now. While the trail is technically closed at this point, many visitors have obviously found ways to continue onward across the gully at that point to reach the coast. Park regulations dictate that you should turn around at the bridge; ultimately, you'll have to rely on your judgment on what to do here.

I hiked the Damnation Creek Trail during a January visit to Redwood National and State Parks. The trailhead is just off of US Highway 101, ten miles south of Crescent City and 30 miles north of Orick. The hike- and Redwood National and State Parks in general- is far from any major metropolitan area, with the San Francisco Bay Area, at six hours away, being the closest. Eureka is an hour and a half to the south. Thus, unless you live along the Northern California coast you'll have to make a trip out here. The trailhead is not clearly signed when approached from either the north or the south; there is an unmarked but well-defined parking area on the west side of Highway 101 at the trailhead. For those approaching from the south, the trailhead is on the left side of the road immediately after Highway 101 turns inland from the coastal bluffs of the Last Chance Grade; those coming from the north will just have to keep an eye out for the pullout on the right side of the road and know that they've missed it if they hit the Last Chance Grade. There are no restrooms at the trailhead and a Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park entrance fee is not required.

Leaving US 101, the Damnation Creek Trail immediately plunged into a soaring old-growth redwood forest with lush undergrowth. The trail began with a gentle ascent as the trail followed the east side of a low ridge with gargantuan coast redwoods; however, the trail roughly paralleled US 101 here, with the highway constantly within sight and earshot, so despite the impressive forest scenery it was not particularly quiet. 

Massive redwoods of Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
After a fifth of a mile, the trail leveled out as it rounded the side of a hill, leaving behind the sounds of US 101 and entering a redwood forest on west-facing slopes. Although the largest redwoods are typically found in valley bottoms and alluvial flats, there were some impressive giants here on these slopes. Late afternoon filtered into the redwood forest. Ferns dominated the understory here, coating the forest floor and contributing to the prehistoric feel of the forest; rhododendron occasionally dotted the understory here, too. This stretch of trail featured the hike's most impressive trees.

Lush redwood forest along the Damnation Creek Trail
Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
The trail descended steadily down these slopes, soon paralleling the Coastal Trail for a stretch (ignore the first use path descending to the Coastal Trail and stay on the single-track Damnation Creek Trail, which stays just uphill of the Coastal Trail. At 2/3 of a mile from the trailhead, the Damnation Creek Trail intersected the Coastal Trail. Crossing the Coastal Trail- which was a wide, well maintained road trace in the Last Chance section here- I continued on the Damnation Creek Trail, which began to follow a ridge.

Sun filtering into the redwoods
The Damnation Creek Trail briefly followed the top of a gently descending ridge, winding between the bases of some soaring redwoods. I really enjoyed this part of the hike: the slight topographic prominence of the ridge helped the trees here catch a lot of late day sun, making for gorgeous lighting.

Redwoods along the ridge
Soaring redwoods along the Damnation Creek Trail
The trail soon began to descend in earnest, dropping down the continent's final western slopes in a series of well-graded switchbacks. Sun filtered through the redwoods and Douglas firs and I caught glimpses of the late-day light glimmering on the Pacific through the trees. The trees here were not as large as higher on the ridge, the understory vegetation was less spectacular, and there were more non-redwood trees mixed in here, but the forest still had a serene and cathedral-like feel.


Forest along the Damnation Creek Trail
Redwood forest
As I descended further down the switchbacks of the Damnation Creek Trail, the composition of the forest began to change: the redwoods became smaller and Sitka Spruce started getting mixed in. Coast redwoods are intolerant to salt, so despite their name they are almost never found directly along the coast. Sitka Spruce, on the other hand, are still able to grow and reach impressive heights even when bathed in sea spray, so spruce trees largely dominate the immediately seaside forests of Redwood National and State Parks (and much of the Pacific Northwest coast!). Though lacking the girth of the mighty redwoods, Sitka spruce are able to achieve impressive heights as well: the tallest known Sitka Spruce reaches 315 feet tall on Vancouver Island and even here along the Redwood Coast they are nearly able to match the height of their more rich-hued and majestic neighbors.


Soaring redwoods
Soon the redwoods ended completely and the forest was spruce alone. The trail turned away from the coast and continued its descent into the canyon of Damnation Creek; some final steep drops brought me to the level of the creek. The trail then began following the creek towards the coast. There were two wooden truss footbridges over gullies along this final stretch of trail; both were damaged during my visit, the first having been partially crushed by a falling tree and the second fenced off with orange netting. As no signage prohibited me from crossing the first bridge, I made my way to the second bridge, where I found a way across the gully and emerged onto the grassy bluffs rising above the rocky beach at the mouth of Damnation Creek.

This was a lovely spot of wilderness coast with sweeping views to the south. The hills of the Del Norte Coast dropped away steeply to meet the ocean here. Far away, the skyscraping skyline of coast redwoods rose above coastal bluffs, making this a rare spot to simultaneously appreciate the world's tallest species of trees alongside the planet's largest ocean. Seastacks dotted the coast, each sending up a curtain of mist each time a wave rolled in off the Pacific.

Beach at the mouth of Damnation Creek
The view to the north was more limited, as a high bluff rose directly to the north on the other side of the mouth of Damnation Creek. While the views from the low grassy bluff were nice, it was not particularly straightforward to get from here down to the beach itself and I stayed at this slightly elevated viewpoint of the ocean to watch the sunset.

Rocky Pacific Coast at Damnation Creek
While I saw a handful of hikers on the way down to the beach, I had the coast all to myself when I arrived about 20 minutes before sunset and did not another person for the rest of the evening. I watched that day- the last day of a particularly bad four years- end as that mid-January sun sank below the western horizon, illuminating the surf on the incoming waves just as it was about to disappear behind the ocean. This is a beautiful spot for a sunset, but if you choose to watch the sunset here it is very important to have a flashlight or headlamp available to return safely up the trail. As dusk settled in, I returned the way I came.

Pacific waves lit by the setting sun
Damnation Creek is an excellent hike, with both a lush and towering redwood forest and access to a rocky and scenic stretch of wilderness coast. While Del Norte Coast Redwoods does not contain the most spectacular of the redwood forests, the varied scenery of this hike still makes it one of the most outstanding hikes on the Redwood Coast.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

East Molera Ridge to Post Summit

Wildflowers, Pico Blanco, and the Pacific
10 miles round trip, 4000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Andrew Molera State Park entrance fee required

The open, grassy spine of East Molera Ridge provides stunning views of both California's Big Sur coast and the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains of the Ventana Wilderness. Awesome views from Post Summit and profuse spring wildflower blooms combine to make this one of the most incredible Big Sur hiking experiences. The hike starts along Highway 1, just meters above sea level, and ends atop a peak some 3455 feet above the Pacific. However, there's a price for all this beauty: the trail up to Post Summit is strenuous, extremely steep in places, overgrown at points, completely exposed to the harsh California sun, and infested with ticks. Luckily, hikers who travel any portion of East Molera Ridge- reached after 1.8 miles and 1500 feet of uphill- will get to experience much of what makes this such an awesome hike. The trail beyond this initial stretch is not officially maintained but is easy and straightforward to follow to Post Summit.

Hikers should absolutely plan to wear long pants for this hike. While there's not quite as much poison oak on this trail as in other chaparral environs of central California, much of the trail corridor is slightly overgrown with grasses and flowers: this means that ticks are a big concern. Wear pants and use bug repellent on your outerwear. Additionally, hiking poles are useful to deal with the extremely steep grades in the first and last miles of this hike. There's also no shade on this hike after the initial 10 minutes of hiking, so come prepared for significant sun exposure. This hike is best in April and May when the grassy slopes of East Molera Ridge explode with spring wildflowers. 

I hiked up East Molera Ridge to Post Summit on an early May day. There are two trailheads to consider for this hike: you can either park in the dirt parking lot at Andrew Molera State Park, where you'll need to pay the $10 (as of 2021) state park entrance fee, or you can also park directly alongside Highway 1 outside the park and shave off a quarter mile from the hike. This second option also avoids the state park entrance fee; while it's tempting, the second option is just a dirt pulloff with room for maybe three cars so most hikers should plan on parking at Andrew Molera State Park. Andrew Molera State Park was about a two hour drive from South Bay: I followed Highway 1 south past Monterey and Carmel. Shortly after passing the Point Sur, I made a right turn at the signed turnoff for Andrew Molera State Park. A short dirt road led downhill past the park entrance kiosk to a sizeable dirt parking lot with pit toilets.

After parking in the dirt lot, I followed the road that led down to the parking back past the the entrance kiosk. The entrance road intersected with two gravel roads, both marked "Authorized Access Only," to the right; I ignored the first gravel road but then turned right onto the second gravel road, following it briefly to a white barn. At the white barn, I found a small wooden post that signed for the East Molera Trail to the left. I headed onto the East Molera Trail, which passed through a tunnel under Highway 1 and then headed east, paralleling Highway 1 briefly, before it joined up with the trail coming up from the trailhead on Highway 1, about a quarter mile from the trailhead. 

After joining the trail from the other trailhead, the combined trail began to head uphill and soon joined up with a road trace; I took a left here and began following the road uphill. The road trace initially pushed uphill through some woods, passing a water tank. At a half mile, the road trace entered a broad, grassy terrace with views of the switchbacks of the East Molera Trail up East Molera Ridge directly ahead. The trail continued steadily uphill here and was a bit brushy at times with grass growing into the trail, but the road trace was very clear and easy to follow. Views of the Pacific Ocean gradually opened up to my back as I made my way up the sloping terrace. 

Andrew Molera coast
At just under a mile, I arrived at the far end of the terrace, at the foot of East Molera Ridge. Here, the trail turned sharply left and became very steep as it began ascending the side of the ridge. The grade here was quite steep and the trail had a bit of loose rock here, so this was a slightly challenging stretch. The trail made one long switchback in ascending this ridge; just before making the switchback turn, the vegetation around the trail became substantially more brushy, making it the perfect habitat for ticks. After the switchback turn, the trail abandoned the road trace and became a single-track path. The trail continued its steep, brutal ascent, but the ever-widening views- which now encompassed the redwood-filled Big Sur Valley and the waves sweeping against the beaches and headland at Point Sur- helped take my mind off the physicality of the ascent.

East Molera Trail
At 1.5 miles, the trail wrapped around a corner of the ridge, leading to great new views to the southeast. Big Sur Valley and its redwoods lay below and I caught a glimpse of the many ridges along the Big Sur Coast in the distance; closer in, I could see the transition from redwood forest to chaparral to grassy meadows on East Molera Ridge, which now rose to the east. I also caught my first glimpse of Post Summit, a high, chaparral-covered peak in the distance.

Overlooking Big Sur Valley
Continuing uphill, the trail transitioned from the chaparral on the ridge's lower slopes to the grassy meadows that dominated East Molera Ridge's upper reaches. Here, the promised wildflowers for which this hike is known began to appear in patches: lupine, owl's clover, and California poppy. At 1.8 miles, after about 1500 feet of ascent from the parking area, I arrived at the crest of East Molera Ridge, where I was received by a grove of wind-stunted redwoods. These redwoods were actually the highest elevation members of an extensive forest along the Little Sur River valley. Coast redwoods- currently the world's tallest known trees- reach the southern end of their range along the Big Sur coast.

Redwoods along the ridgeline
The officially maintained East Molera Trail ends where the trail meets the ridge, but a very clear and obvious track continues from here along the crest of the ridge to Post Summit. While some hardy hikers continue beyond Post Summit to Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel, that extension of this unmaintained path is extremely rough and overgrown; for most hikers, hiking a short stretch of East Molera Ridge or reaching Post Summit is reward enough.

The redwoods at the ridge crest initially blocked views of Pico Blanco, a magnificent peak of white limestone that rose across the Little Sur watershed. Although Pico Blanco, at less than 4000 feet tall, is far from the tallest peak in the Santa Lucia Range along the Big Sur Coast, it is certainly one of the most distinctive, its geometric and pale summit sticking out amidst the other rugged, chaparral-covered peaks. 

Redwoods and Pico Blanco
At 2.2 miles, I reached the top of the first of multiple knolls along East Molera Ridge. Views from here were glorious, encompassing Pico Blanco and the Little Sur River Gorge to the north and Point Sur and the Pacific Coast to the west and south. Over the next two miles, the unmaintained but generally clear trail continued through grassy meadows, with a net elevation gain of 800 feet as it headed up one grassy knoll after the next, often with short descents between the bumps on the ridge. The scenery was constantly fantastic, with views of the ocean and big peaks accompanied by glimpses of redwoods in the nooks and crannies of nearby mountains.

East Molera Ridge views
East Molera Ridge
As I hiked along East Molera Ridge, the wildflowers along the grassy ridge became increasingly profuse. The bulk of the floral display consisted of lupine and poppies, which at points bloomed in beautiful, interspersed fields along the trail. These explosions of orange and purple on the green, grassy ridge contrasted strongly with the white peak of Pico Blanco and the deep blue of the Pacific to either side of the ridge. The blooms were absolutely spectacular and at the time of my hike were most impressive on the second and third knolls (of four) along East Molera Ridge. While the views from the ridge would make this a nice hike at any time, the wildflowers truly elevated this to a sublime hiking experience.

Pico Blanco with the lupine and poppies
Lupine and poppies put on a show on East Molera Ridge
Pico Blanco from East Molera Ridge
Lupine, poppies, Point Sur
The fourth major knoll on East Molera Ridge was the last and highest; I arrived atop this knoll at 4.1 miles from the trailhead. Here, grassy East Molera Ridge reached its high point and began fading off to the east; chaparral-covered ridge leading up to Post Summit rose to the north. Views to the southeast opened up and included the Big Sur Coast stretching towards Cone Peak. The steepest and most difficult stretch of the trail lay ahead: hikers looking for a scenic experience that is a little less physically demanding can turn around here. 

View of final route up to Post Summit
The trail dropped a little bit from the fourth knoll on East Molera Ridge down to a saddle before beginning a direct and very steep ascent up towards the ridgeline of Post Summit. Trailside vegetation shifted from grass to chaparral and the trail itself became a bit more brushy; paintbrush grew near the trail, providing a bit of wildflower interest. Whenever I needed a breather, I turned around to see the Pacific stretching to the horizon, its surface tossed with whitecaps by the day's strong winds.

Indian Paintbrush, Big Sur Valley, and the Pacific
About halfway through this final thousand-foot ascent, the trail joined the main ridgeline of Post Summit and turned to the east, ascending directly along the crest towards Post Summit. Views expanded to reinclude Pico Blanco and the Ventana Wilderness to the north, but every step forward was now more difficult as the steep trail now alternated between stretches of loose rock and patches of very brushy vegetation. I battled through the chaparral and up the loose pebbles on the ridge until finally, 5 miles from the trailhead, I came to Post Summit. Just below the summit, the trail- at this point just a faint, unmaintained social path- split in two, with the left trail leading to the rocky high point of Post Summit and the right trail continuing along the ridge towards Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel. I had had enough for the day and took the fork to the summit, where I relaxed on the rocks to enjoy the 360-degree view.

At the summit, I could see many of the highlights I had taken in on the way up: Pico Blanco, Point Sur, and Big Sur Valley, but I also enjoyed expansive new views to the north and east. The Big Sur Coast stretched to the east, with high Cone Peak rising a mile into the sky from the ocean, the greatest coastal vertical relief in the contiguous United States. Closer in, the main ridge of Post Summit led east to the rugged, chaparral-coated summits of Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel. To the northeast, Ventana Double Cone- the tallest nearby peak- just peeked out from behind Kandlbinder. These peaks make up the heart of the Ventana Wilderness, one of the most rugged wilderness areas in a state well known for its many rugged wildernesses. Post Summit lies on the boundary of the wilderness: I had exited the boundaries of Andrew Molera State Park while hiking along East Molera Ridge earlier in the day.

Manuel Peak and the southern Big Sur Coast
Ventana Double Cone and the Santa Lucia Mountains
Pico Blanco
Big Sur coastline from Molera Point to Point Sur
Post Summit is named after the Post family, which has lived in the Big Sur region for over a century and a half. William Post, a European-American homesteader, arrived at the California Central Coast in 1848, married a local Costanoan, and eventually established his family in the rugged landscape by the sea. His descendants later opened the renowned Post Ranch Inn along the coast.

This is not a heavily traveled trail. While the Big Sur coast is increasingly being loved to death and the nearby Panorama Loop hike in Andrew Molera State Park sees hundreds of visitors per weekend, I saw fewer than 10 people on the way to and from Post Summit on a lovely spring weekend day.

The hike to Post Summit is one of multiple hikes in Big Sur that extend from Highway 1 up to the crest of the ridges rising above the Pacific. It is perhaps most comparable to the hike up Mount Manuel in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park just south on Highway 1. Of the two hikes, I prefer East Molera Ridge for its open grassy meadows with spectacular views; however, the view from the summit of Mount Manuel is arguably more impressive as it encompasses the rugged Big Sur Gorge and the high summit of Santa Lucia Peak. Both are worthy hikes that are overgrown and brushy by the standards of hiking trails in most other places but are veritable highways through the chaparral thickets of the Ventana Wilderness. While the hazards of this trail (snakes, ticks, poison oak, sunburn) may not be for everyone, those who do tackle East Molera Ridge will find stunning Big Sur views and those who come for the wildflowers in April or May will leave with an unforgettable hiking experience.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Mount Manuel

Santa Lucia Range and Big Sur coast from Mount Manuel
9.5 miles round trip, 3200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, but trail is extremely brushy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park entrance fee required

Delivering sweeping views of California's dramatic Big Sur coastline and the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains of the Ventana Wilderness, Mount Manuel is a very scenic destination reached by a challenging and overgrown trail from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. While the Big Sur Coast is well-loved by tourists and casual hikers, few get a chance to explore the high peaks of the Santa Lucia Range rising above the coast as the Santa Lucias are extremely wild. Mount Manuel is actually one of the more accessible summmits in the Santa Lucia Range, but that's not saying much: the second half of the trail to the peak is extremely brushy, making this a hike only for more dedicated hikers. Reaching the summit means pushing through tick-infested thickets dotted with poison oak; the reward is an incredible view up and down the coast. I can't recommend this hike to everyone but if you want a more than superficial understanding of Big Sur and you don't mind dealing with ticks and brush, then Mount Manuel is a good introduction to the rugged backcountry of the Ventana Wilderness. This hike visits a false summit of Mount Manuel that has the best views on the peak; the true summit of the peak is a little further and requires travel through even more intense brush, so only the hike to the slightly lower false summit is recommended.

The trailhead for Mount Manuel is easily accessible, right in the heart of Big Sur off Highway 1. I hiked Mount Manuel on a beautiful January weekend day, just a few days after a major storm swept through Southern California and washed out Highway 1 in the southern part of Big Sur. The trailhead was about a two hour drive from South Bay: I followed Highway 1 south past Monterey and Carmel to reach Big Sur and then continued on the winding coastal road until I reached the town of Big Sur. I made a left turn at the turnoff for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, following the main park road past the entrance station and then along the Big Sur River until reaching the large parking lots at the far end of the park. The hike to Mount Manuel started from the far lot. 

I started off on a gated, paved road that led towards the Homestead cabin, the Big Sur River Gorge, and Mount Manuel. The first 0.2 miles of the hike followed a gradually ascending paved road, which cut uphill just above some of the park administrative buildings and residences at the far southeastern corner of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. After making a turn, the trail arrived at a junction at 0.2 miles: the paved road went straight ahead towards the Big Sur River Gorge, while the trail to the Homestead Cabin and Mount Manuel branched off to the left. I took this left fork, which quickly brought me to the Homestead Cabin. This cabin was home to the Pfeiffer family, one of the earlier European American families to settle Big Sur; the Pfeiffer family claimed a homestead here above the Big Sur River and built the wooden cabin here. The Pfeiffers were neighbors to a Chumash family that homesteaded nearby: Manuel Innocente also made his living here near the mouth of the Big Sur River gorge and lent his name to the peak that is the destination of this hike.

Pfieffer homestead
Leaving the Homestead Cabin, I followed the trail signs to head north and west; the Mount Manuel Trail branched from a wider, unmarked road trace leaving the cabin. The Mount Manuel Trail stayed level for a short stretch before coming to a trail junction; the left fork at this junction was unmarked, but a sign indicated that the Mount Manuel Trail continued along the right fork. The trail began a steady ascent through oak forest until reaching a larger trail sign at just over a half mile from the trailhead. This sign- near junction with the now-abandoned Oak Grove Trail- marked the start of the long climb up to Mount Manuel, as well as marking the boundary between Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Los Padres National Forest.

The trail began to switchback while making a steady climb up the lower slopes of Mount Manuel and soon exited the oak forest into the open chaparral that is the predominant ecological feature of Big Sur. From these open slopes, I had good views down into the Big Sur Valley, enjoying views of the forested ridge across the valley and the tall tops of the redwoods below. The extent of development in the Big Sur area- the houses perched on the ridges, Highway 1 cutting through the forest, what appeared to be some apartment buildings at the bottom of the valley- was apparent from this viewpoint as well.

View over forested Big Sur Valley
At the one mile mark of the hike, the Mount Manuel Trail ceased its switchbacks and wrapped around to the eastern side of Mount Manuel's southwest ridge. Here, a spectacular view of the wild Big Sur River gorge unfolded in front of the trail. Below, the Big Sur River cut a dramatic, rocky gorge that nestled a handful of redwoods in its rugged recesses; above rose chaparral mountainsides bisected by the next mile of the Mount Manuel Trail, which cut a linear path ever higher up the mountain's slopes.

Big Sur River Gorge
The next mile or so of trail was a steady and moderate ascent uphill. Since I could see ahead to the 2.3-mile point on the trail, there were few surprises on this stretch of trail. The trail followed the contours of the mountain, alternating between crossing through gullies and wrapping around ridges as it made its uniform ascent. Although the trail was not particularly wide, there was a clear corridor that made travel fairly straightforward. As I made my way uphill, views of the ocean and the forested Big Sur Valley continuously improved.

Mount Manuel Trail, Big Sur Valley, and the Pacific Ocean
At 2.3 miles, the trail wrapped around the south ridge of Mount Manuel. Looking back from here, I caught the last of the spectacular views of the Big Sur River Gorge and the Pacific Ocean for a little while. Rounding the corner of the ridge, a new set of views unfolded before me: a few peaks of the interior Santa Lucia Mountains came into view. 

View down the Big Sur River Gorge to the Pacific Ocean
View up the Big Sur River Gorge into the Ventana Wilderness
Here, at 2.3 miles from the trailhead, the Mount Manuel Trail crossed into the Ventana Wilderness and the well-maintained trail that marked the start of this hike ended. From here to the end of the hike atop Mount Manuel, the trail is brushy, first just slightly so and later to an excessive degree. Hikers unwilling to deal with the brush and its associated risks of ticks and poison oaks can turn around here for a hike of just under 5 miles with just under 1500 feet of elevation gain, with views of the Big Sur Valley, the Pacific Ocean, the Big Sur River Gorge, and a glimpse of the Ventana Wilderness peaks. Those willing to continue on from here will have to deal with vegetal obstacles but will be rewarded with views that are far more remarkable.

I continued on the brushy trail, which passed through a forested gully at 2.8 miles from the trailhead. This was the lushest stretch of the entire hike: in addition to passing by a stand of second-growth redwood, the trail also winded through some oak woods where ferns covered the slopes of the canyon. 

Redwoods in a gulch on Mount Manuel
Lush environs on the high slopes of Mount Manuel
The trail became much drier on the opposite slope: here, the crumbling trail passed through overgrown chaparral and forced me to dodge spines of agave that had grown into the trail corridor. The trail was quite narrow here and in addition to being brushy was generally poorly maintained.

Agave along the brushy trail
I came around a ridge to a lovely view of the high peaks of the Ventana Wilderness at 3.3 miles. At 3.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail rounded another ridge and entered a stretch of oak woodland. Here, the brushiness of the trail reached its apogee: over the next 0.8 miles, the trail frequently had to dive through tunnels of brush, with occasional poison oak joining in with the other vegetation crowding out the trail corridor. Manuel Peak was occasionally visible in the distance in front of the trail; however, the woodlands here allowed for only partial views of the Ventana Wilderness, which at times included the nearby Kandlbinder Peak and rocky Ventana Double Cone.

At 4.3 miles, the trail reached the top of the ridge and returned out into the open; however, the trail remained extremely brushy here. Arriving atop the ridge, new and expansive views opened to the west: I could see out to the Pacific Ocean, Point Sur, and the green oceanside fields near Andrew Molera State Park. The false summit of Manuel Peak rose directly in front of the trail here. At the base of the false summit, two paths diverged at an unsigned junction; the true trail was the path to the left, which made a broad switchback to ascend the final 250 feet at a steady and reasonable grade, while the path to the right was an insanely steep shortcut use path that I do not recommend. Views became ever more impressive as I worked my way up the final switchbacks to the summit.

Finally, at 4.7 miles, the trail reached the top of Mount Manuel's summit ridge. Here, an unsigned trail headed right along the ridge to the false summit. I followed this trail over the rocky terrain of its last few meters to reach the false summit and its extraordinary 360-degree view.

From Mount Manuel, I had an unsurpassed view of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific lay to the southwest, its coast defined by the lighthouse at Point Sur and the rugged shoreline south of Big Sur. A forested ridge dotted with houses rose over the coast nearby and container ships traveling along the Pacific Coast were visible out at sea.

The Santa Lucia Mountains were generally rocky and brushy, although the canyons below the peaks were heavily forested and supported the southernmost naturally occurring redwood forests. Ventana Double Cone's massive, rocky peak- one of the tallest peaks of the Ventana Wilderness- rose just four miles away. Other impressive peaks to the south included Ventana Cone, but most notable was Junipero Serra Peak (Santa Lucia Peak), which rose above the deep cut of the Big Sur River Gorge. Junipero Serra Peak is the tallest summit in the entire Santa Lucia Range at over 5800 feet in elevation and was covered in a snow cap when I visited in January. Although rare, snow does occasionally fall at the highest elevations of Big Sur; the particular winter storm that had dropped this coat of winter snow on Juniperro Serra and Cone Peaks had also triggered a mudslide that wiped out Highway 1 south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

View down to Andrew Molera State Park and Point Sur
Ventana Double Cone and the rugged peaks of the Ventana Wilderness
Snowy Junipero Serra Peak rising over the Santa Lucia Range
Big Sur Coast from Mount Manuel
View out into the Pacific Ocean
On a sunny January weekend day, I had the summit to myself for the whole hour that I was there and I saw just five other people on the trail all day, of whom only three continued all the way to the summit. The views were marvelous and made the constant struggle with overgrown brush worthwhile. This isn't a hike for everyone, but if you don't mind picking off ticks after your hike and beating your way through thick vegetation, the views of Big Sur from atop Mount Manuel are an excellent reward.